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HOWARD ROSENBERG

Tv Up To Its Rabbit Ears In Issues

February 17, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Remember, you read it here first. It's time for a TV moratorium on issue movies.

From sitcoms to sitdrams, the networks are so much into "relevance" these days that they are forgetting to be entertaining. TV comedies are growing grimmer, and it's also hard finding a TV movie that isn't about some thing instead of some body .

Issues, not people, are the stuff of much of today's TV stories.

The history of contemporary issue movies begins at least as early as the 1972 ABC movie "That Certain Summer," whose homosexual theme broke network ground. Topicality was no total stranger to prime-time entertainment programs, but this may have been the first time that characters supported issues instead of vice versa.

"That Certain Summer" was refreshing and bold for its time, because TV then was seldom more than a big, friendly, slobbery dog that sat on your lap and licked your face. The ensuing years found TV being far more incisive than theatrical movies when it came to exploring some of the critical issues of our times. If the execution often was flawed, at least the subjects were something to chew on.

But give us a break already!

Issue movies are popular with networks--especially CBS, it seems--because they're sensational and easy to promote. In February alone, we've already seen terrorism ("Under Siege" on NBC), a boy being molested by his Little League coach ("Child's Cry" on CBS) and an alcoholic father and drug addict son ("Vital Signs" on CBS).

And there's much, much more. Abortion is the theme of tonight's "Choices" on ABC (at 9 on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42). And on Tuesday, a popular high school teacher molests female students in "One Terrific Guy" on CBS (9 p.m. on Channels 2 and 8).

Also on the way are male homosexuality ("Welcome Home, Bobby," Saturday on CBS), statutory rape ("Betrayed by Innocence," March 1 on CBS), traditional rape ("Outrage," March 2 on CBS), toxic leaks ("Acceptable Risks" March 2 on ABC), toxic waste ("A Deadly Business," March 4 on CBS), and female bisexuality ("Two Loves," this spring on ABC).

That's right, no AIDS movies. That topic was handled recently by NBC's "St. Elsewhere" and the ABC comedy "Mr. Belvedere."

Meanwhile, we were all relieved to learn that NBC's Sunday night movie "The Last Days of Frank and Jesse James" did not claim that the outlaw brothers were molested as children.

But the abortion story in "Choices" and the molestation theme of "One Terrific Guy" are classic TV issue movies whose characters become subordinate to the issue.

In "Choices," George C. Scott is 62-year-old retiring Judge Evan Granger and Jacqueline Bisset is Marisa, his 38-year-old second wife. Melissa Gilbert is Evan's 19-year-old daughter, Terry, who is pregnant by her college boyfriend. Terry and Marisa want Terry to have an abortion and Evan is morally opposed, demanding that Terry have the child and marry the willing father, who also is opposed to abortion.

Hence, the familiar moral Maginot lines are in place. Terry and Marisa believe that a woman has the right of choice concerning her own body, and Evan rigidly, shrilly and arrogantly disagrees.

It's at this point that Judith Parker loads her implausible script and makes the moralizing Evan walk the plank. Contrived coincidence intervenes. Marisa's discovery of her own pregnancy is an enormous blow to Evan, who has declared categorically that he wants no more children. Marisa could have an abortion, except she wants the child. And besides, Evan is opposed. He couldn't reject Terry's abortion on moral grounds and advocate Marisa's, could he?

A first-rate cast is mostly squandered in "Choices." Bisset and Gilbert, in particular, give poignant, layered performances within the script's limits. One-third into the story, though, the characters submerge into the abortion debate and lose their identities beyond The Issue.

Good storytelling does not necessarily require balance. Why shouldn't a script make a strong statement and not straddle the fence? Yet the "pro-life" crowd has a legitimate bone to pick over the ambivalent Evan, who will win no friends for the anti-abortion movement. In the best traditions of issue movies, however, "Choices" suspends its remaining credibility and ends with smiles galore.

In "One Terrific Guy," Wayne Rogers is idolized high school baseball coach/biology teacher Charlie Brennan, who has been fondling female students for years by convincing them that they were part of a research project.

The story begins promisingly, with nice performances by Susan Rinell as 18-year-old Carrie Burton, who pays a high price for turning in Brennan, and by Mariette Hartley and Laurence Luckinbill as her well-to-do parents. At first, Carrie is believed only by her family and boyfriend and not by school officials, who don't want to disrupt the school's successful baseball team.

After initially engaging you, though, "One Terrific Guy" becomes less and less terrific. Lou Antonio's direction of Cynthia Whitcomb's story becomes stiff and remote, Rogers is unconvincing as Brennan and the movie's underlying premise becomes harder to believe.

"I think I would have suspected something if the coach had asked me to come to his office and take off my clothes," says Carrie's mother. Exactly.

Remember, you heard this here first, too. Why not get all issues out of the way in one TV movie? A pregnant gay woman gets an abortion from an alcoholic doctor with AIDS whose wife has incest with their son who uses drugs and rapes his piano teacher who is physically abused by her terrorist husband who dumps toxic chemicals into a stream where a Little League coach swims in the nude with his team.

The happy ending could be a small problem, but that's where ingenuity comes in.

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